United Methodism Part II

Holding Tight & Letting Go

Rev. Harold Wheat

“Breath, breath …all is breath!” Traditionally, Western European Christians have translated Ecclesiastes 1:2 with the word “vanity” rather than “breath.” But, a wise friend once suggested “breath” as an alternative reading, and after further study it seems to be a more meaningful possibility. Breath, like love is sometimes about taking in and holding tightly, other times about releasing and letting go. “For everything there is a season…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

United Methodist Pastors make covenant promises as part of our code of professional ethics both to love the people of God and also to release them when the time comes for our departure from the role of Pastor of a particular community. Pastors are “set-apart ministers” who have no membership in a local church congregation because when we become clergy our membership is transferred to our Annual Conference (UM Discipline 301.2, 309.1). We are structured this way because the “Church’s ministry of service is a primary representation of God’s love” (UM Discipline 303.2). We Pastors strive to get ourselves out of the way so that the people in the churches we serve can clearly perceive the presence of the divine in the service we offer.

Recognizing the human tendency to become attached to charismatic leaders and lose sight of God, we United Methodists have developed a leadership culture based on breath and breathing. We recognize the need to breathe in, grow in trust, share in the intimacy of community with our leaders. But, just as it is not healthy or even possible to only inhale, we also celebrate letting go, releasing, and sending our leaders on to new assignments; we breathe out too. This letting go of former Pastors does not mean that we are letting go of the warm place we have in our hearts for people who have loved us. It does not mean we cannot occasionally reach out to check in with leaders we have loved and trusted. It does not mean we stop praying for our former leaders, nor do they stop praying for us. What it does mean is that we recognize that they are no longer our Pastor, and some of the closeness and trust we shared when they were in that role no longer belongs to us or to them because they have left that role.

There is a moment after releasing a deep breath fully when our lungs are empty. The functioning of the role of Pastor in the United Methodist tradition depends on that moment of emptiness as much as it depends on breath and release of breath. For it is in that moment when our lives are disrupted by the departure of a leader with whom we have deeply engaged that we can remember that it was never about that leader at all, but about what we could learn about our relationship with God as we came together with that Pastor. This is the leadership Jesus modeled when he prepared his disciples for his departure saying, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).

%d bloggers like this: